King Arthur comes home

How a key Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painting by Edward Burne-Jones ended up on a Caribbean island

Name any major artist you can think of and the chances are their work is spread across the globe.

But the curious story of how the final and, arguably, greatest work by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones found itself in an obscure Caribbean art gallery enticed me to visit Puerto Rico to find out more and to make a documentary about it for Radio 4.

Over the past 45 years The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon has been a centrepiece of a collection of English and European master works that date right back to the middle ages and which have all been selected to live in a beautiful white modernist gallery that perches on the south coast of the island.

Burne-Jones's enormous painting, which shows the mortally wounded King Arthur with his head resting on the lap of Queen Morgan le Faye and surrounded by other beautiful women as they wait to see if he will awake, left Britain in 1963 when it was auctioned at Christies’ and bought by Puerto Rican Industrialist, philanthropist and politician, Don Luis Ferre, for his new gallery the Museo d’arte de Ponce.

To find a painting like this in a small Carribean town is bizarre to say the least.

Don Luis Ferre, who collected the works together, was a native of Ponce. He trained as an engineer and a bridge builder who (and) worked for his father in the Porto Rico Iron Works.

In the 1950s the island’s traditionally rural, agrarian market was transformed into to an urban, industrial economy, thanks largely to the ambitious US government-sponsored factory program Operation Bootstrap (“Operación Manos a la Obra”).

But while the Ferré family's new business - Ponce Cement - benefited from the government initiative. Many of the islanders didn’t and Ferré sensed that the island’s new ideology lacked a vital, spiritual dimension for the Puerto Rican people.

He decided beauty - that “essence of life” capable of elevating and enriching the human soul - was the answer to Puerto Rico’s problems. So in 1956, guided by Julius S. Held, a Rubens specialist and professor of art history at Columbia University, Ferré started collecting works of art, bringing them to the island and making them available for all the people to enjoy.

In global art terms Ferré and Held were working on a limited budget but they still targeted works from every major school of Western art. They often acquired unfashionable and underrated pictures, focussing instead on the quality and the look of the piece rather than its ‘fashion’ in the market. As Held wrote in a letter to Ferre:

“After all, what you are building up is not meant to appeal only to the taste of 1959, or not even of 1969. A museum is built for the centuries, and as long as we do not let down our standards of quality, we will come out all right, because tastes and fashions change.”

Today, as the King Arthur painting heads back home for a special exhibition at Tate Britain, Puerto Rico is an in-between place.

In the same year as Edward Burne-Jones died, leaving his Arthur painting unfinished and unwanted by Britain, the Spanish American war resulted in the ejection of Spain from Puerto Rico and the colonisation of the island by America. Since then its fortunes have been very mixed as the island has tried to find a place and an identity in the global economy. Currently its status is that of American Commonwealth: neither independent nor a full American state. Everything it does goes through the US but it has no one to represent its interests in Congress.

Ponce itself is a very poor decaying colonial town without much hope for improvement in the near future. Industrialisation hasn't really worked and the pharmaceutical companies, which have kept the economy going in more recent years, are moving out and going to countries where labour is even cheaper. But despite all this hundreds of people come to Ponce every year to visit the gallery and when they come they spend money in the town. Tastes have indeed changed since its opening in 1959, and many trends have worked in the museum’s favour as the works are sought for loan by galleries all round the world, every painting that goes on loan to another country takes the name of the town and the Island with it.

I think that if he could look down from wherever he is now, Don Louis Ferre would be very pleased with the way the gallery is continuing to use Art as a bridge, to reach out to the rest of the world in order to help the economy and enrich the lives of the people of Puerto Rico.

The Return of King Arthur is a Whistledown Production for BBC Radio 4 and will be broadcast at 1100 BST on Monday 14 April. The exhibition, Edward Burne-Jones: The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon opens at Tate Britain on Tuesday 15 April.